Lions & Tigers & Rabbits, Oh My: The Forgotten Gamma World
It's somehow appropriate that a column called Forgotten Games should get forgotten for about a year, but as with many things we can't always get what we want... at least not when we want it. I'm happy to report that I've recently located my stash of old Role-Playing Games, and at the top of the stack was the second game on my list from oh, so long ago - Gamma World, published by "The Game Wizards," TSR.
You really can't blame them for trying. After all, TSR was riding high with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the late '70s, and it seemed plausible that there was room for another game world that could be just as popular. Take a quirky little niche game called Metamorphosis Alpha, add a few more rules and some extra mutations, and voila. This is to say nothing of the fact that theatres and television at that time were full of popular science-fiction films and shows, everything from Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, to Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There was no better time for such a game to become an instant hit.
But it didn't.
Gamma World had its fair share of devoted fans, which is the only reason it survived through 5 editions (1978, 1981, 1986, 1992 and 2000), but it never achieved the degree of market saturation that Dungeons & Dragons did. So why does Gamma World remain a "third tier" gaming system, forever relegated to the darkest, dustiest shelves of the RPG shop? There are a few reasons, some more obvious than others. In no particular order:
1. The Metric System - TSR's target audience was American, and America loathes the metric system. So what were they thinking? The 1978 forward to Gamma World says that "the U.S. is beginning to make the switch from the English system to the metric system of weights and measures," and it was primarily for this reason that Gamma World's charts were all metric. "We, as editors, advise use of the metric system," they said. Indeed, at the time it probably did seem like a good idea; the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 was enacted "to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States." In the late '70s, it seemed to be a great idea. But the U.S. Metric Board's efforts was ultimately abandoned in late 1982, largely ignored by a public who had other things to worry about than liters and meters. Which brings us to...
2. Bad Timing - It's the dawn of the 1980s. Terrorists are hijacking planes and killing American hostages. Ronald Reagan is poking the Soviets with a pointy stick, forcing the country ever deeper into a Cold War. Nuclear missile silos are being dropped in your back yard. Everyone is deathly afraid that someone is going to push the button. And you've just published a game that deals with terrorist groups, nuclear and biological annihilation that plunges the world into the dark ages and devastates North America. What do you do, hotshot? What do you do?
Role-playing games are about escapism more than anything, and nobody wants to be reminded about their own harsh reality when they're trying to kick back and have a little fun. D&D works because it's an escape into a world of wizards, dragons and dungeons, things we don't see in the real world every day. Gamma World, for all its mutations and far future setting, was realistic, considering the climate of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and no doubt, it was avoided by many for that reason.
3. Poor Presentation - Let's take a look at the 1st Edition cover, shall we? In muted shades of gray, instead of color, we see a group of helmeted, goggled, anonymous stormtrooper-like men, looking at a ruined building. Yawn. It's like the away team scanning for life signs on Star Trek, except less interesting. The back cover is even worse; who on earth thought that an entire cover of hexes would be seen as either useful or interesting in the least? Inside, you've got 56 pages of two-column text, which was pretty standard back then, but even taking that into consideration the layout is dull and boring, consisting of column after column of charts and text broken by the odd... (getting sleepy)... random graphic... (snore)...
4. General Silliness - Barl Nep. Ber Lep. Ert. Grens. Herkel. Hoop. Kep. Narl Ep. Parn. Sleeth. Terl. Zarn. Zeethh. A clever alien language? No, it's some of the creatures listed in the middle of the book. Can you honestly say that you can charge nobly into battle against a group of Sleeths without cracking up? And what about the intelligent Venus Fly Trap reading a book, or the rabbits with sniper rifles, or the lizard licking the dirt off an electric fan? Or how about that exciting treasure list? How many ball point pens, pencil sharpeners and tubas can you find before you throw the book down and start rolling for +3 2-handed Frostbrand swords? There's fanciful, and then there's just outright silly, and Gamma World crossed the line one too many times. I mean, come on: WTF is "two thirds of a metric ton of Mygnyl Chorts" supposed to accomplish for me?
5. Unachievable Separation from Reality - You know you're in trouble when you come across a sentence like: "It is recommended that the referee not allow the players to become mutated plants." This constant pushing of the boundaries of realism was one side of the "reality" coin that turned people off. It's one thing to talk about mutants; The X-Men were making a big hit in the comic book world at the time, for example. But it's quite another to have giant talking rabbits conversing with intelligent cactuses and flying hippos. I don't care if the game does say it's "Science Fantasy;" the whole thing often resembled a hallucinogen-induced nightmare rather than a plausible game world, being "too unreal" to handle.
At the same time, the "realistic" elements of the game also proved a detriment, for both the referee and the players. Let's say the characters come across a drum of radioactive waste. The referee has to describe a metal drum marked with warning symbols in a way that won't reveal exactly what it is, since the characters aren't supposed to know. And when he finally breaks down and says "It's a big drum with yellow triangles on the side that say Danger," the characters have to pretend like they don't know what it is. So that means opening the drum, and dying, or coming up with some crazy explanation about how they have a bad feeling about opening it. You can imagine the difficulty the referee has when they discover a pencil sharpener, or a stapler, or an electric fan; how do you describe those things in such a way as to preserve the mystery? You can't.
It would be wholly unfair not to talk about the things that Gamma World got right, however, because there are several of them. First of all, there's the concept of rolling on a chart for mutations during character creation. Whether they were all practical or not, the idea of injecting some sort of randomness into the character generation process is something many games lack. A fighter is just a fighter, but a flying, glowing monkey with tentacles is fun.
Secondly, Gamma World managed to cram an entire game system into 56 pages. Granted, it wasn't always pretty, but it was there, and you didn't need to go out and buy three other hardcover books and all their supplements. Player creation, combat rules, adventure concepts, and even creature archetypes, all right there under one cover. At times, the rules got a bit too cluttered, with far too many charts to compare numbers too, but taken as a whole it was nice and simple. This is perhaps most evident in the creature encounters section, which presents each creature type in a single paragraph with Number appearing, Armor Class, Movement and Hit Dice. No sifting through a long column of Initiative, Special Abilities, Saving Throws, Organization, Climate, Social Security Number and Mother's Maiden Name. Do we really need to know all that about a creature we're just going to mash into the ground in the next five minutes? I didn't think so.
Ironically enough, that brings me to the third interesting thing Gamma World presented, which was the concept of non-lethal combat. In D&D, for instance, it's all about swords and axes and blood and death and die die die. But Gamma World had STUN Rifles, and TEAR GAS Grenades, and Slug Throwers that did STUNNING damage. In other words, there was a notion that you didn't have to kill everything you came across. In fact, killing things at random in the Gamma World modules was typically a very bad idea, because those were beings you needed some sort of information from.
The final revolutionary thing that Gamma World featured, way back as early as 1978, was the crazy concept of classless, levelless characters. No 1st level fighters or 5th level wizards, just your character and the ability to take experience points and apply them directly to improving your ability scores. Got 3000 experience? Add +1 to dexterity. In the end, much more simple and useful for your average gamer than spending a half hour leafing through the Feats chart.
Of course, Gamma World has changed a lot since its early days, for better and for worse. As I mentioned earlier, there have been 5 major editions, three of them associated with their own series of adventure modules: 1981's 2nd Edition had classics like Legion of Gold, Famine in Far-Go and The Mind Masters; 1986's 3rd Edition had the Alpha/Beta/Gamma/Delta/Epsilon adventures, and 1992's oft forgotten 4th Edition featured generally silly modules like Mutant Master and All Animals Are Equal. Thankfully, this last was put to rest in 1994.
In 2000, Gamma World was re-released as a campaign setting for the Alternity Science Fiction RPG, retaining the apocalyptic setting and mutation charts, but once again revamping the ruleset and moving them farther away from their humble origins. At 192 pages, it's almost 4 times thicker than the 1st Edition ruleset, and in my opinion it's not really any more interesting or fun than that little black-and-white book from 1978. Whether or not it will be remembered is another story.
Next time (and I promise, it'll be a lot sooner than 11 months from now, I'll jump into the almost entirely forgotten Super Hero genre with 1979's classic Villains & Vigilantes. Up, up and away...